By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The best roast chickens I’ve ever eaten were at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, juicy, crisp-skinned birds, snipped into random-seeming fragments by some madman with a scissors and arranged in a jumble over a bread salad enriched with warm pan juices, pine nuts and currants. The chickens are majestic animals, with a flavor almost 19th century in their level of detail: tinged with smoke from the wood-burning oven in which they are roasted, flavored with the tiny sprigs of thyme and rosemary that have been tucked underneath their skins, and slightly, subtly funky — one imagines these chickens have actually scratched at worms. There are few surer recipes for happiness in this world than a long afternoon with a good friend, a Zuni chicken, and a bottle of old Cornas.
Zuni, along with Chez Panisse and the Oakland restaurant Oliveto, is at the forefront of what might be called urban rustic cuisine: Mediterranean peasant cooking reinterpreted for affluent American urbanites who believe in living simply, prepared with a level of attention to ingredients and method and an authenticity that is often hard to find in the countries that inspired most of the dishes in question. Even in the poorest corners of Tuscany or the Landes, it would be hard to find a grandmother who made as intensive use as Zuni does of bitter greens, or simmered lentils, or stale bread.
Judy Rodgers, the chef at Zuni Café and the author of The Zuni Café Cookbook (Norton), a lavishly produced volume that earlier this month won the James Beard Foundation Award as the best cookbook of the year, is master of a scholarly, allusive cuisine, grounded in classical French cooking but drawing inspiration from all over the Mediterranean and beyond, eccentrically rustic in a way designed to feed city dwellers’ most atavistic longings: hard-crusted bread, wrigglingly fresh oysters and house-cured anchovies; fistfuls of rowdy herbs and the sweet, smoky lick of fire. If you’ve lately begun to yearn for the sophisticated combination of Gorgonzola with chestnut honey, a snifter of old calvados, or the pleasures of a really chunky sauce gribiche, chances are that Rodgers anticipated the craving more than a decade ago. She was way out in front on herbed polenta, espresso granita, baked eggs, and the almost feral affinity of Californians for Italian-style breakfast bars.
Where the aesthetic of her friend Alice Waters often comes down to the notion of what an egg salad or a corn-and-lobster soufflé theoretically might taste like if you had access to the best ingredients in the world and a kitchen staff with the dedication of monks, Rodgers’ is more process-oriented. Where a regular at Chez Panisse, which changes its set menu nightly, will theoretically never experience the same meal twice, there are undoubtedly longtime customers of Zuni who have never ordered anything but the roast chicken and the caesar salad.
If you are a fan of Zuni Café, you will find almost everything you might be looking for in Rodgers’ cookbook. Of the 250 or so recipes, many are for dishes like caesar salad, hamburger and grilled cheese sandwiches, which is to say, things for which you ordinarily wouldn’t be consulting a $35 volume — unless you had swooned over them at the restaurant. Rodgers’ re-imagined versions are extraordinarily detailed, time-consuming, writerly, and usually worth the extra trouble. One admonition, frequently repeated, is: “Stop. Think. There must be a harder way.” (I doubt that many readers will be putting up their own duck confit or making their own salt cod, although it’s nice to know that they could.) But in a way, the theme of her book is the luxury of pure time, and the value it adds to something as basic as the food we eat for dinner. No cookbook author has emphasized method, the slow, unhurried manipulation of ingredients, quite as much since the late Richard Olney’s deceptively titled Simple French Food.
Restaurant chefs don’t write their own cookbooks — they hash them out with collaborators. They are busy people, chefs, with staffs to run, people to feed, and charity dinners to fly off to — the book tends to be a fairly minor part of the package, more marketing tool than literature. Partially because of this, although there are many exceptions, chefs’ cookbooks are often little more than glossy souvenirs of the restaurants in question. But Rodgers, alone of the major chefs that I can think of at the moment, wrote her book without assistance, and each quirk of her graceful prose, each four-page recipe, each extended meditation on oysters or omelets or lively crabs are hers alone. ä
And Rodgers’ book is wildly, ecstatically improvisatory, less a compendium of recipes sometimes than a collection of prisms through which to view the edible world. The headnotes, which is what food people call the blocks of text that appear before the recipes, almost overwhelm the recipes themselves, spinning off alternate recipes and proto-recipes and dishes that might be more appropriate in a different time or place, headnotes that take on a sort of gravitational force of their own. So that a recipe for monkfish, white beans and fennel, for example, may lead to a dish that contains neither monkfish, beans nor fennel, but expresses the same juxtaposition of crispness with lush, mellow-flavored starch. The six-page recipe for assembling a fritto misto plate, lacy-crusted assemblages of deep-fried vegetables, sliced lemons and seafood, is probably expandable to its own book.